January 28, 2011

"Infinity of Nations"

One of the jewels in the Smithsonian Institution's crown of museums is the George Gustav Heye Center, a branch of the National Museum of the American Indian located at the tip of Manhattan Island in the former U.S. Customs House.

The Center's namesake was born into a wealthy industrialist family in New York in 1874 and after dabbling the fields of electrical engineering and investment banking devoted himself to acquiring what became the world's largest collection of native American artifacts. As early as 1916 he had enough material to open The Museum of the American Indian at 155th Street and Broadway and was lending pieces to other museums for exhibitions. Eventually his massive collection, over 800,000 objects, became the basis for the National Museum of the American Indian and the Heye Center was opened by the Smithsonian in 1994.

In an homage to the perspicacious Mr Heye a new permanent exhibition has been unveiled that allows visitors to view over 700 works from North, Central and South America. This comprehensive survey of native art and artifacts is divided into 10 geographical regions covering Patagonia through the Arctic Circle and is aptly titled "Infinity of Nations".

The exhibition begins with a display of headdress', one from each of the regions represented in the show. While a headdress may be a universal symbol of status and mystical powers, the construction and appearance varies significantly by area and resources available. A Haida frontlet from the North West Coast of British Colombia is fashioned of painted wood with shell, sea lion whiskers and ermine as decoration. Farther south in Panama, a Kuna Kantule hat looks more like a woven crown of palm leaves with macaw and harpy feathers giving majesty to the headgear while a Peruvian Tiwanaku four cornered hat made of dyed alpaca wool offers both prestige and warmth to the wearer.

While I wouldn't call this exhibition a "Greatest Hits" of native art, it is a very comprehensive and informative look at societies from across the Americas. Lovely examples of utilitarian objects such as a woven Hopi Manta Blanket from Arizona, a Ute antelope skin cradle board with beaded decorations from Colorado and Inuit ivory snow goggles from the Arctic are side by side with more fanciful pieces like an Algonquian miniature house made of birch bark from the Upper Great Lakes and Karajá ijasò mask and rattles of grass and feathers from Brazil.

There are many fabulous items on display and most are interesting from both historic and artistic perspectives. But for me, the strength of the show is as a whole - an exploration of native cultures' similarities and differences across geographic and chronological borders - truly an "Infinity of Nations"!

January 22, 2011

57th Annual Winter Antiques Show

We New Yorkers have already endured more than our fair share of snow and ice this season so the opening of this year's Winter Antiques Show was an especially comforting occasion! Always a ray of sunshine in the dreariest month of the year, the annual extravaganza of the rare and unusual provided a much needed diversion from Mother Nature's latest blow.

So despite the new snow delivered overnight and the forecast record low temperatures for the weekend, it was with great anticipation that I put on my winter boots and coat and walked through Central Park (actually quite beautiful with the sun shining) to the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue. Instead of the usual enormous bouquets of flowers, this year the foyer was decorated with more appropriate snowflakes - the cloth kind suspended from the ceiling and the light kind illuminated on the floor!

I was clearly not the only one who thought this would be a nice way to spend a Friday afternoon - the show floor was humming with visitors enjoying the elegant atmosphere and extraordinary offerings. From Persian rugs to French wallpaper, from Northwest Coast masks to Tiffany lamps, from exquisite portrait miniatures framed in jewels to medieval suits of armour, there was something for everyone!

It was hard to pick my favorite piece in this year's show but there were several that I found fascinating. Like the Alaskan fossil walrus skull that dated back about 10,000 years and still retained the lower jaw and tusks on the stand of Peter Petrou, London, and priced at $64,000. Continuing in a Northern theme, I loved the luminosity of Albert Bierstadt's painting "Iceberg", 1883, at Alexander Gallery, New York. More whimsical items include a set of eight stuffed frogs by the German toy maker Steiff for $2,800 at Frank & Barbara Pollack, Illinois, a tramp art double-armed lamp for $8,500 at James & Nancy Glazer, Maine, and a pair of rustic Adirondack armchairs fashioned of tree branches, twigs and roots and painted white at Hirschl & Adler, New York.

Throckmorton Fine Art, New York, had a marvelous large metate, or grain-grinding stone, in the shape of a jaguar and composed of volcanic stone. Made in Costa Rica circa 600-900 AD, this particular example was most likely used in a royal household as indicated by the engraved designs on the back and its immaculate condition. Hans P. Kraus Jr., New York, had a mock-up of a 19th Century photography studio on his stand which also featured a rare complete example of "The Cator Album", 1866/77. The open page showed a collage of a watercolor court jester strewing tiny albumen photograph portraits across a landscape. It was absolutely charming. I don't often comment on china and porcelain but Michele Beiny, Inc., New York, had on her stand an 1839 Sèvres chocolate service with its own fitted leather box. This gorgeously painted and gilded set had been presented to the winner of the Emperor's Cup Race in 1853 and could be yours for $110,000.

This year's special loan exhibition was titled "Grandeur Preserved" and featured masterworks from the Historic Charleston Foundation. Carefully selected from the Foundation's substantial collection, the artifacts presented here included peerless examples of furniture, needlework, silver, clocks and other treasures and gave renewed meaning to the idea of "Southern gentility"!

If this never-ending winter is getting you down I have the perfect solution! You have until the end of January to visit the Winter Antiques Show and lose yourself in a world of beauty, refinement and enchantment. Enjoy!

January 09, 2011

What's On at MoMA

It's that odd time of year in the museum calendar - the time when the autumn shows are over but the winter shows have not yet opened. Fortunately there is one New York museum where visitors can still see some excellent special exhibitions as well as a fabulous permanent collection - The Museum of Modern Art.

On view since October 2010 but running through April 2011 is the astonishing exhibition "Abstract Expressionist New York". Culled entirely from the Museum's own collections, the 200 works on view present the best of the best of this very important 20th Century movement.

In the 1940s and 50s, American artists sought to find a new, independent voice in the face of the destruction of the World War II and the dominance of European masters. The contemporary art world was a different scene then. It comprised a very small and tightly knit group of artists, collectors, galleries and museums - a far cry from the "industry" we now associate with the field. The tiny band of artists we now classify as the Abstract Expressionists, in their efforts to change the culture and thereby the world, are largely responsible for this evolution in the way we "consume" art.

For the first time New York became the center of the art world and with it a revolution in the way art was created. Each of these post war artists, Jackson Pollack, Mark Rothko, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, David Smith, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell - to name just a few, expressed him or herself in a totally unique way. There is no common thread to their work except for the pursuit of something new, forceful, urgent and revolutionary, something to make a fresh start for civilization as they knew it.

This is a rare opportunity to see an entire floor of MoMA given over to one particular movement. The sheer size and superb quality of the collection is amazing. My jaw dropped when I walked into a gallery filled with Pollack's signature drip paintings and then another with ten of Rothko's luminous color works. Even the most jaded museum goer couldn't fail to be impressed!

Moving upstairs to the sixth floor we find "On Line" a look at the medium of drawing and how it has transformed through the ages. Now this may not seem very exciting as an exhibition topic, but the curators have managed to imbue the old-fashioned idea of pencil and paper with a whole new life. Organized chronologically in three sections, we begin with the early 20th Century and "Surface Tension" with a focus on the flat plane, to "Line Extension" where the line extends beyond flatness into real space and becomes three-dimensional, and ends with "Confluence" where line and background are fused and the line is pushed into our world. Sound confusing? Well, it is a little abstract but the exhibition is beautifully presented with excellent examples and the whole thing makes sense when you are there!

People have been communicating through drawing since early times, but the early 1900s saw an interest in a simplification of drawing - an exploration of the potential of what a line could convey. In 1910 the Futurists achieved expression of speed and motion on a flat surface through the use of the line. The Cubists and the Constructivists sought to break down imagery to its barest elements - again using the line to explore form and space. As this investigation continued, artists expanded to instilling a third dimension into the plane - a cut in the canvas, a form made out of metal wire, a construction made of string. With the end of the century approaching, the study expanded to truly three dimensional, often large scale work. The line, in the forms of sculpture, landscape, canvas and video, become part of our lives - the grid of interdependency, the intersection of surface and space, past and present, art and life.

After the intensity of this dialogue about lines it was refreshing to come across a performance piece on the the Museum's second floor. For a limited time visitors can enjoy Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla in "Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on Ode to Joy for a Prepared Piano". Conceived in 2008, the act comprises a grand piano with a hole cut out of the center through which a pianist leans out and plays upside down and backwards the Fourth Movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Sound like fun - it is! And the perfect coda to a marvelous afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art!

January 07, 2011

New Worlds for a New Year

For my inaugural museum excursion of 2011, I visited the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West. It was the very first museum I visited when I moved to New York in the 1980's and though it has changed a lot over the years, I still have a soft spot for the Hall of Mammals, the Hall of Birds and my very favorite, the Hall of North West Coast Indians, the oldest hall in the museum. As I strolled past the old-fashioned dioramas and new-fashioned computer interactive touch screens, I was heartened to see that nature and science still fascinate and inspire and children are still impressed by the enormous suspended whale and towering skeletal dinosaurs.

But the highlight of this visit to the museum was the 45 minute long film presented in super-size IMAX in the LeFrak Theater. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, the IMAX Space Team put together an amazing movie tracking the building, launch and journey of this remarkable instrument.

The idea of a space-based telescope dates back to 1946 but actual design and construction did not begin until the late 1970s with the finished product ready to be launched in 1990. After a successful introduction into space via the Space Shuttle Discovery, it was soon realized that the primary mirror, the centerpiece of the optical system and critical to the quality of the images captured, was flawed, and so began a series of missions to repair and update equipment while orbiting in outer space.

The IMAX film, in a format as grand as the cosmos itself, follows the history of the Hubble Space Telescope from its initial blast off into the atmosphere through the recent awe-inspiring space walks to fix and improve the equipment. I literally was holding my breath as highly trained astronauts (who practised in an enormous swimming pool in Texas) captured, entered and refurbished the apparatus all while floating thousands of miles above the Earth in -200 degree temperatures with no gravity. Amazing.

Also amazing are the images that Hubble has given us. Formations of new stars, burning out of old stars, black holes, gamma ray bursts and the existence of other suns and galaxies can all be seen in the remarkable photographs and data transmitted back to scientists and astronomers at the Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington D.C.

Experts are unsure about the future of the Hubble Space Telescope. Despite the wear and tear of 20 years in outer space, and the obsolescence of its technology, the Telescope appears to be functioning well after its most recent refurbishment in 2009. Indeed the future of the entire American space program appears unsure as budgetary and other pressures squeeze NASA and its partners. It would be a pity to abandon the field now after so much innovation and progress and sheer national pride can be attributed to the agency and its operations.

I remember when Apollo 11 landed on the moon and astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin stepped onto its surface. It was an incredible moment and one that remains impressive even as space exploration becomes almost routine. Back out on the street, in the feeble light of a January afternoon, I looked up at the sky and mused what lies beyond our corner of the universe and what marvelous discoveries await. Happy New Year!